U.S. may follow Brits into surveillance society
July 25, 2007
While the U.K. has been awash in video cameras for at least the past decade, public surveillance in the States is largely in the embryonic stage. As some local U.S. governments work to set up systems of their own, debate is firing up back home.
Of particular note is New York City’s Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, a security wall around the financial district that will include license plate readers, gates that can close to block streets and 3,000 closed-circuit television cameras.
About $25 million of the $90 million price tag for the project has been procured so far from the city’s budget and the federal government, according to Paul Browne, a police department spokesman.
License plate readers will go into effect later this year, with other accoutrements to follow, he said. Planners hope to have the whole system up by 2009.
The goal, they say, is to prevent acts of terror.
“New York remains at the top of the terrorists’ list,” Browne said.
While critics contend that the project is an invasion of privacy and a waste of dollars that could go to first-responders, Browne said that case law and modern life mean that privacy can’t be expected on a public street.
“There’s already thousands of cameras in private hands” throughout the city, he said. “Where there’s no expectation of privacy, there’s no problem with police using cameras. There’s no expectation of privacy in this day and age.”
A difference in cultures might explain why CCTV, a system that was so easily accepted in the U.K., is meeting organized opposition in the States, according to Steve Block, an official with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington, D.C., office.
While fear of terrorism and crime are factors for implementation of such systems anywhere, U.S. culture might not so readily accede to it, he said.
“The Brits have a very different tradition in terms of civil liberties,” Block said. “They don’t have a bill of rights. They’re much more trusting of government than we are. One of our traditions is mistrust of government, and there’s good reason to have those concerns.”
To date, there haven’t been any national reports done on the pros and cons of such a system, or substantive public input that should be part and parcel of such a system, according to Melissa Ngo, director of identification and surveillance for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a civil liberties and privacy advocacy organization.
Elsewhere in the States, Baltimore is looking to expand its network into the five-county area and Chicago is looking to build on its approximately 2,250 cameras, Ngo said.
Then there’s Dillingham, home to about 2,400 people. The small Alaskan town has 80 CCTV cameras it bought with a Homeland Security grant, roughly one camera for every 30 people.
That’s still a smaller ratio than in Great Britain, where estimates put one camera for every 14 people.
“When you look at that, it’s clear the funds could have been used so much better,” Ngo said. “I’m sure the town would get more use out of hiring more cops.”